November 3, 2010

I’ve been thinking.  Kids who want to go into the arts for a living generally hear something like this from adults:  “You really ought to have something to fall back on.  You know you’ll probably never be able to make a living at that.  That’s not very realistic, is it?”  I’ve talked before about what a hideously bad thing it is to discourage kids like that.  (I still hold a grudge against the people who told me I couldn’t be a writer.  I sometimes think about calling them up and gloating.)

But I wonder:  Do kids who want to go into other difficult areas get that kind of discouragement?  If a kid says, “I want to be an astronaut.” Or even “I want to be President.”  What’s the response then?  The stereotype says “encouragement.”  What’s the thing we say, that any kid can grow up to be President (which Obama actually validated, lest we become too jaded).  If a kid wants to be an astronaut — especially if this kid is really good in science and has an interest in astronomy — what’s the response?  Yay?  Boo?  What?

Because I gotta tell you, you have a better chance of making a living as a writer or an actor than you do of becoming an astronaut.  Seriously.

From the Screen Actors Guild website:  “SAG represents over 120,000 actors who work in film and digital motion pictures and television programs, commercials, video games, industrials, Internet and all new media formats.”

From the Actors’ Equity Association website:  “. . .represents more than 48,000 Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.”

The Writers Guild of America (West) has roughly 19,300 members.  (link goes to Wikipedia because the WGA website was unhelpful…)

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America alone has around 1500 members.

Now granted, there aren’t 150,000 people in the US making their entire living as actors, and only a fraction of that 1500 in SFWA make their sole living as writers (but I can name a couple of dozen who are off the top of my head).   But all of the above organizations have stringent professional requirements for membership.  Every single member has been paid for their art.  Many of them quite well, and for decades.

On the other hand, according to Nasa.gov, there are currently 106 men and women employed as astronauts in the U.S., plus 9 astronaut candidates. (And it doesn’t look like there’ve been any new ones selected since 2004.)

What I don’t have are numbers on what the competition is like — how many more people are competing for those actor and writer slots, versus how many people are competing for those astronaut slots.  But I’m still willing to bet the average kid has a better chance of making it as an actor or writer than as an astronaut.  Let’s not even talk about President of the U.S. — maybe three people in a generation get that job.  But does any kid who says they want to be President ever hear, “You know, kid, maybe you’d better have something to fall back on?”

So why don’t young aspiring actors and writers — and filmmakers, and fashion designers, and visual artists, and so on — get any love?  Because a lot of people don’t look at their crafts as work.  They’re seen as leisure activities.  Everybody knows that being an astronaut is really hard.  You have to be really smart, it’s hugely competitive — and boy, the status involved.  You’re a national hero by default.  Who wouldn’t aspire to that? Go for it, kid!

But writing?  Acting?  Anyone can do that.  (Never mind that the people who think this can’t explain why not everyone does…)  The really visible people in those jobs?  The really famous actors, let’s say?  We never see them working — we see them getting coffee in People magazine.  We have pervasive cultural images of artists, actors, writers, etc. as dissolute vagrants who come to horrible ends.  (Thank you very much, La Boheme.)  People who discourage kids from the arts really do think they’re doing the kids a favor.  Famous people are actors, not you. (And yet, every week, hundreds of actors appear in guest starring slots on prime time TV shows…they have to come from somewhere…)

Let me also point out that the entertainment industry generates hundreds of billions of dollars every year.  If a kid wants to try to get a slice of that for themselves?  Heck yeah, go for it!


17 Responses to “encouragement”

  1. T. Hernandez Says:

    Amen! I’ve always considered myself lucky to have had parents who insisted I go to college but who also responded very positively when I said that I would be a theatre major. I’ve worked professionally in theatre and television and theme parks my entire adult life. Am I rich? No. Do I make a living? Yes. Is it hard sometimes? Yes. Is it worth it? YES! I spend a fair amount of time each year working in Arts Education because it’s been proven over and over and over that kids who are exposed to the arts do better in all areas of their lives. Whether they go on to a career in arts or not.

  2. Zachary G Says:

    My mom never discouraged me, we were always an artsy family, but a lot of people I know have demonstrated their disapproval. It’s weird how you say, “I’m a writer,” and everyone calls to mind images of drunken stupor and social exile, or they just plain think you’re a failure. There’s this pecking order that a lot of people submit themselves to, and they say, “you have to get a job,” and they’re talking about the shitty jobs that no one wants. And sure, that might be true, but they don’t talk about what’s going on -inside-. Get a job, pay the bills, become a responsible adult. Excuse me if I want to make my living doing something that actually makes me happy. I think it’s admirable just to have the audacity to think you can succeed in life being an artist.

  3. Jeff Says:

    If I might offer a possible answer to your puzzle:
    For the more pragmatically-minded parent who is likely to raise objections when a child mentions an interest in a creative profession, I think most of the worry stems from the perceived lack of structure to success in the creative arts, also seen as an over-reliance on luck.
    In the case of astronauts, there are definable, objective requirements that NASA is looking for that include degrees and physical fitness, all of which can be tested for along reasonably agreed standards. There is always an element of luck involved, of course, but the abundance of “official checks” that are supposedly set up by objective observers along the way means that most people will assume there’s a fair system of review involved.
    (The President thing is, I think, a special exception: grade-school elementary curriculums hammer in the idea that anyone can be President as a method of simplifying the political science issues that separate a Monarchy from a Democracy when they’re teaching about American Independence.)
    However, when you look at the creative professions, there are very few of the objective benchmarks that can be aimed for. There are successful authors that never spent any more time in English classes than was required by whatever schools they went to. There are actors that never acquired a degree in theatre or drama. The inverse is also true; there are people who acquired advanced degrees in both subjects that have never acted on Broadway or published a novel. The other perceptive hurdle is that there are no real objective standards for those careers, becuase there can’t be; individual tastes vary too widely. Therefore, success is often based on a good audition or a favorable agent read-through or (in extreme cases) being in the right place at the right time. The idea is reinforced by all of the stories about how wildly successful books and movies were passed on multiple times by recognized industry leaders. The supposed arbitrary nature of success in the creative fields vs. others is probably the source of most of the negative feedback from mentors; they’d be able to provide a clear description of how a child could succeed at being an astronaut, and they’d believe there are clear, objective measures that determine those successes. Compared to that, trying to be an author seems like a complete crapshoot becuase it seems like there’s no clear objective method to success.

  4. Becca Says:

    I got my degree in education, and let me tell you it is very difficult to get a job in that field in NY state. I got my degree and started looking for jobs and was told that I couldn’t get one unless I had another 12 credits in literacy. I got my 12 credits and now I am told I can’t get a job unless I have dual certification which means basically getting another graduate degree to get the coursework in. I’ve atually heard some teachers now telling students not to become teachers because it is so difficult to get a job right now.

    And the one of the reasons I went into education was because I was told I couldn’t go anywhere with an English Writing Arts degree. I have more friends with that degree that have jobs than any other. Go figure.

  5. Claire Says:

    Besides the lack of a defined pathway to making a living in the arts, the type of education and training required to become an astronaut are percieved to be useful in other science, education &industry jobs.

    Many of the creative art departments focus on trining the skills and leave out any training on the “how you make a living” aspect. Or at least that was the case thrity some years ago. Then the thinking was that if you were passionate about what you wanted to do you would find a way to get work. Even if that has changed I think the perception is still there.

  6. carriev Says:

    That’s just it — I think it’s all perception. The fact that Actors Guilds and professional writing organizations exist indicates that there _is_ a structure in place for pursuing those goals. It takes research and legwork and yeah, it’s tough.

    I just find it so interesting that society in general seems to validate some sets of hard work and not others.

  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Glenn Stanza, Kathryn Gaglione. Kathryn Gaglione said: GREAT post about encouraging kids with "unrealistic" job aspirations: http://bit.ly/dhohsH […]

  8. spiderorchid Says:

    I couldn’t agree more…

  9. […] I came across paranormal and fantasy author Carrie Vaughn’s blog post, elegantly titled Encouragement. A delightful […]

  10. Debbie W. Says:

    I clicked on this entry with the idea of leaving a comment agreeing with Carrie’s opinion … lo and behold, an advertisement pops up in the middle of the screen:

    Casting Calls For Kids & Teens. Apply now! Ages 5 & Up!

    I kid you not!!

  11. Great post Carrie! i think you the the nail on its proverbial head. The world we live in is fueled by and better for good communication. Keep up the good work!

    x Claire

  12. Doruk Says:

    Even though not as prevalent, this is hardly limited to arts; when I first expressed my interest in being a scientist, I heard a lot of comments on the lines of ‘become and engineer or doctor instead’. The respective pay scales usually is the reasoning behind this one.

  13. Jackie Says:

    I am almost 50 years old, and have been working over 30 of them. I have asked many of my coworkers what their degrees, if any, were in and compared it to what they were actually doing. Not much of a match up outside of things like medicine and law that require certain education by law. And many of those had gone on to new careers or left other unrelated careers behind. So I tell most kids worrying about what they should study, study what you love. It makes it easier to study. And accept the fact that you are likely to have more than one carreer in your life. Nothing is permanent. Do what you love, tey everything that looks interesting. Live.

  14. Jackie Says:

    And never stop learning and teaching.

  15. David Bowles Says:

    I can’t see discouraging people like that either.

    I myself love history above everything else, but I chose my #2 interest of science to get my official degrees in due to economic interests.

    I feel that writer is perfectly reasonable profession, and an extremely important one from a historical perspective. (There’s history again!)

  16. […] on how parents can support kids who are budding artists, writers, actors, etc… She also has two previous posts on the same […]

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